Sonoma County and Santa Rosa approve measures to improve housing availability

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials signed off Tuesday on a set of new policies intended to help quickly rehouse residents who lost homes in the destructive wildfires this month, hoping to make rapid progress on one of the disaster’s most immediate and far-reaching consequences.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved new rules allowing fire victims to move into temporary living situations such as an RV parked on their property or someone else’s, a pool house with no kitchen or a room at a bed-and-breakfast inn.

Supervisors also paved the way for several new sanctioned locations where residents can sleep in their cars or trailers overnight. They put a temporary halt on any new vacation rental permits and waived or reduced permit fees for property owners who want to build granny units.

“We are hell-bent on getting this right quickly,” Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, told supervisors. The department stands ready to issue permits for the reconstruction of burned homes in the unincorporated area.

Across the county, 6,800 structures were destroyed, including 2,900 homes in Santa Rosa.

“The sense of urgency that’s needed in our agency to respond to this is there,” Wick said.

Santa Rosa also approved a suite of new regulations taking effect immediately to waive some permit fees, prioritize home reconstruction and make it easier for residents to erect temporary living situations on their properties while building is underway.

“What I mainly want to do tonight is to act to assure the community that we are committed to recovery and rebuilding,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.

The measures taken by the two government bodies were similar, but differed in one key way. The supervisors decided not to move forward with a local ordinance that sought to combat price gouging in the rental market. The City Council, despite concerns raised by District Attorney Jill Ravitch, voted unanimously to create its own ordinance that aligns with state law.

It prohibits landlords from raising rents more than 10 percent above what they were advertised pre-disaster until April 18. County staff had proposed a local ordinance that would have gone a step further, barring landlords from raising rents at all beyond their average rental price unless they could provide supporting cost data to prove it was necessary.

But Ravitch urged supervisors to table the ordinance, warning it could get in the way of her office’s ability to prosecute suspected price gougers based on state law, which she said already had “a lot of strength to it.” Ravitch’s office has investigated 25 allegations of price gouging since the fires began and is closing in on a few cases that could be brought to court, she said.

“Honestly, I just think you’re diluting what we’re trying to do,” Ravitch said.

County officials were receptive to Ravitch’s plea, though staff members may still revisit the issue if they can craft an ordinance that compliments the efforts of the District Attorney’s Office.

“I think this whole board finds it disgusting that anybody would take advantage of our victims,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman. “So we want you to go after them and get them and stop them.”

Hours later, the City Council, where a slim majority last year voted in favor of rent control, unanimously backed the price-gouging rule.

Property manager Keith Becker denounced any landlord who sought to take advantage of the diminished post-fire housing landscape.

“The idea that a property might have been listed at $2,000 the first week of October and is now $3,000 in the third week of October is reprehensible,” Becker said. “There should be no reason for that and no allowance for that.”

Becker, however, urged the council not to duplicate the work of Ravitch’s office. Council members, perhaps persuaded that the people most vulnerable to price gouging might not be inclined to report it to authorities, voted in favor of the local rule.

“I think we now need to send a message to renters, giving them hope,” said Councilman Julie Combs, who called in from a business trip to China.

The move followed an earlier decision by the council to create a special zoning district to cover affected areas and make the rebuilding process as fast and efficient as possible.

The five zones identified include parts of Coffey Park, Highway 101/Round Barn, Fountaingrove, Fountainview, and Rincon Valley.

The council approved the district only after a debate that laid bare the tension between those who want to move forward quickly to rebuild what was here before and those who’d rather see the city put more study into how to improve those neighborhoods.

Longtime developer Hugh Futrell, who lost his home in the fire, spoke glowingly of city staff’s effort to assemble a package of quick solutions.

“This is one of the finest moments in the history of Santa Rosa,” Futrell said.

Others, however, urged the council to go more slowly and think seriously about allowing homeowners to rebuild just as they did before - on hillsides prone to potentially deadly fires in some cases.

“We can’t let expediency be the enemy of sustainability,” said city resident Kevin Conway.

The council approved the ordinance 6-0, with Tom Schwedhelm abstaining because his home is in one of the designated zones.

On vacation rentals, a controversial issue before the fires burned across some areas of the county, the Board of Supervisors put an initial 45-day halt to any new permits, with the possibility of extending that moratorium up to two years. The ordinance also applies to hosted rentals, in which someone rents out a single room or sleeping area rather than an entire structure.

Zane said she would like to see some of the county’s 1,500 permitted vacation rentals become long-term housing.

“Those are perfect places for our fire victims,” she said. “They have furnishings. They have dishes. They have cookware. They’re ready-made for families.”

But Sonoma Valley resident J.J. Abodeely spoke out against the vacation rental moratorium, telling supervisors he planned to use his property both for a new granny unit that would be rented long term and to occasionally use the primary residence as a vacation rental. The vacation rental option is what will allow him to afford the home, he said.

Barring residents from getting a new vacation rental permit won’t necessarily ensure their properties will become part of the rental stock, he said.

“I don’t think we have the facts - what we have right now is a lot of emotion,” Abodeely said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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